Go home with the hair you envisioned.

By Hana Hong
March 24, 2021

You know what's worse than experiencing a hair job gone wrong? Having to pay for it. Unfortunately, hairstylists are not mind readers, and for all of your efforts to communicate what you want to your stylist, some things can get lost in translation. And if you're anything like me (scared of confrontation), you tell the stylist you love it, dish out a couple hundos, and walk out the door. 

So where does it go so wrong, and how can you avoid it? We asked the pros themselves how to negotiate with your hairdresser—and avoid any meltdown moments at the salon.

Always bring in visual references.

The phrase “a picture speaks a thousand words” rings even truer when you’re at a salon. “Photos are the best language!” says Sunnie Brook, celebrity hairstylist and Biolage global ambassador. “They are the bridge for creating a look that both the hairdresser and client are happy with. I always ask my clients to show me photos of a time when they loved their hair the most, or a time that they liked it the least.”

Use the right lingo.

First, a disclaimer: “I believe it’s the hairdresser’s job, as a professional, to do a thorough consultation with the client to make sure their needs and expectations are met. The client shouldn’t have to worry about saying or asking for the right thing,” says Brook. That being said, there are certain adjectives that would be easier to avoid, especially when you get into tricky territory like bangs. Instead of using vague words like “shorter” and “longer” (your version of shorter could be entirely different from your hairdresser), try being a little more descriptive, like indicating how many inches you’d like off, or whether you want a hard or soft cut. If you’d like layers, don’t just say if you want short layers or long layers—let your hairstylist know if you’d like it to be more layered in one place and longer in another.

Speak in terms of both problems and solutions.

Instead of speaking strictly about what you want, make sure to specify what you don’t want. For example, don’t just say you'd like more layers, also say that you don't want your hair to look flat. “Both are equally important,” says Brook. “I like to ask lots of questions in my consultation, and at the end, I repeat back to the client what we have decided on and communicate the steps we are going to take to achieve the look.”

Be confident in what you want before you get to the salon.

Brook’s biggest client pet peeve? Indecision. “If a client is unsure of what they want, even after the consultation, I never move forward with a cut or color. No one is happy if the targeted look was not clearly identified, and in turn, the results are neither satisfying to the client nor the hairdresser,” says Brook. “If someone is on the fence about a change or look, I politely tell them to come back another day when they are ready.” In order to truly get to create a look that you love, make sure you have clearly defined objectives.

Another tip? Try to schedule your appointments for earlier in the day, says Sarah Potempa, celebrity hairstylist and founder of Beachwaver. Chances are, your stylist won’t be running behind and will have time to dive into the details with you.

Keep an eye on your stylist.

People instinctively act laid-back when they go to the salon, but it’s not a good idea to be on your phone while your stylist is at work. It’s important to watch what your stylist is doing in order to catch errors as soon as possible. Which leads us to our next point...

Don’t be afraid to speak up.

Nobody wants to be “that client” and complain, but newsflash: hairstylists would rather you say something than nothing. “If you are uncomfortable at any point, you should definitely communicate as soon as possible. A good hairdresser will listen and make you feel taken care of,” says Brook. Be honest but tactful—try leading with something like, “I’m sorry if I didn’t make myself clear,” or “I wanted something more like this—let me explain it better.” It’s good for the stylist and client to be on the same wavelength, and if that offends them, they probably aren’t the right stylist for you.

“If you don’t have the stomach to let the stylist know when he’s done cutting, call them once you’re home,” adds Chris McMillan, stylist and owner of Chris McMillan, a salon in Beverly Hills, Calif. “The stylist will do anything to fix it, because at the end of the day, they want you to be happy and don't want to lose clients. They should fix it for free within a week.”

Do your research.

According to Brook, the key to finding a great hairdresser happens before you even sit in the chair. Look at reviews, dive into their social media, and check out the salon in person (if allowed). “You can learn a lot about a hairdresser just by watching how they interact with others and their clients,” says Brook. “Before booking an appointment, I suggest going to the salon to sit and watch the hairdressers from the waiting area. You can browse their products while doing research (think secret shopper status), watch the hairdressers as they work, and really get a feel for who listens to their clients by seeing them work in real time.” You can also call ahead and ask if a stylist is available for a consultation; that way, you can confirm your compatibility before you rush into a commitment.